Psellos supported gender equality in eleventh-century Byzantium

Byazantine Empress Theodora (d. 548)

Achieving gender equality today is vital for ensuring that every woman and man reaches her full potential. Yet gender equality has long been of acute concern. In eleventh-century Byzantium, the highly influential political counselor and intellectual Michael Psellos identified as a woman.[1] With his keen understanding of gender advantage, Psellos also strongly advocated for gender equality.

Psellos credited his mother with his advocacy for gender equality. Probably many years after she died and at a time when he was in serious political difficulties, Psellos wrote and disseminated a long and influential encomium for his mother Theodote. In this encomium, Psellos declared of his mother:

She became an ornament to her kind and a paragon of virtue for those who came afterwards. She passed judgment from both sides on the feminine and the masculine and did not give one gender the advantage, leaving the other with an inferior lot — that would be a sign of a thoughtless arbiter and a careless arbitration — but granted equal measure to both. And if the two genders differ in the tenor of their bodies, nevertheless they possess reason equally and indistinguishably [2]

Theodote was socially recognized as a model for proper behavior: “an ornament to her kind and a paragon of virtue for those who came afterwards.”  Her son’s parenthetical comment, “that would be a sign of a thoughtless arbiter and a careless arbitration,” indicates his own strong support for gender equality. A subtle rhetorician, Theodote’s son implied a troubling question. In the Byzantium of his time, did most women (and men) follow Theodote’s example in supporting gender equality?

Theodote herself sought to obscure her position of superiority. Her son described her as dominating all others:

{she} showed herself to be more resilient than the other portion of our species, prevailing over all men and women, over the latter by her incomparability and over the former by her superiority. … That which in others is added to the awkwardness and roughness of character, I mean being inaccessible or difficult to approach, and which discourages one from drawing near, that was given to her by the superiority of her own virtue. In short, it was not only the majority of people who feared her and held her in awe, but also her own parents, and this even in the depths of their old age, as though they were paying their respects to a superior nature which they revered and regarded as a living law. … if they did something wrong and it escaped their notice, they took care lest she discover the event.

Like many women through the ages, Theodote was a strong, independent woman who dominated the persons around her, including her father. Most historians, who have been men, haven’t acknowledged such dominance.

Theodote dominated her husband under the contrived appearance of being subordinate to him. Theodote’s son described his mother’s husband, whose name isn’t known, as a simple, mild, easy-going man. To understand his relationship to Theodote, one must perceptively interpret her son’s doubled descriptions:

To my father she was not only a helpmate and an aide, in accordance with divine decree, but also a prime agent and discoverer of the most noble things.

In other words, she told him what to do and thus ennobled him.

She arranged for my father to be dedicated to God {sent to a monastery} before her, yet again granting him precedence even in matters concerning the other life.

In other words, she sent her husband to a monastery to get him out of her life.

Now in the case of my father, whose family could trace its descent from consuls and patrikioi {highest patricians}, matters were not arranged in so fitting a manner. If one were to place him and my mother on one side of the scales and the rest of his family on the other, he would win by far thanks to the weight of my mother, but in other respects he would fall short of them.

As always, all the credit for a man’s life belongs to his wife. Theodote’s son described her as explicitly acting to obscure her superiority and dominance in relation to her husband:

on account of the equability of his soul everyone felt confident in approaching and speaking to him {Theodote’s husband} and not a single person feared to do so. Only my mother, on account of the sublimity of her virtue, did not associate and converse with him on an equal level, but as though she were inferior to him. It was only in this respect that she maintained an incongruity between them and did not speak to him in a manner according to his nature, since she did not seek to conform to his character, but rather to the ancient commandment. [3]

Theodote, not surprisingly, only reluctantly had sex with her husband. More generally, make-believe about gender equality has caused enormous harm. Many today do not recognize the wide range of injustices associated with the actual social and political subordination of men to women.

Actual, fundamental political power occasionally becomes visible. Michael Psellos’s Chronographia states:

The {Byzantine} empire passed to the two sisters {Zoe and Theodora} and then, for the first time in our generation, one saw the woman’s quarters transformed into an imperial council chamber. One saw both the civilian and military factions agree under the supervision of the empresses {Zoe and Theodora} and obeying them more than if a strong man were seated before them and had given strict orders. [4]

With women as the sole rulers of the Byzantine Empire, women’s rule at the political pinnacle of society was no longer obscured behind men. The empresses Zoe and Theodora soon resolved to choose a man to serve as emperor for them. That formal change signified little to the knowing. Michael Psellos owed his long political prominence to his close association with powerful women of the Byzantine royal women’s quarters.[5] He advocated for gender equality with a keen sense for women’s actual power.

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Notes:

[1] Sewter insightfully observed:

The two predominating passions of Psellus’s life were to get on in the world and to promote scholarship and learning.

Sewter (1953) Introduction, pp. 2-3.

[2] Michael Psellos, Encomium for his mother 25(b), from Greek trans. Kaldellis (2006) p. 96. Subsequent quotes from the Encomium are from id.:  7(b), p. 64 ({she} showed herself…); 8(c), p. 66 (That which in others…); 9(a), p. 67 (To my father she was not only…); 16(d), p. 80 (She arranged for my father…); 4(b), p. 57 (Now in the case of my father…); 9(d), p. 68 (on account of the equability of his soul…). On Theodote’s husband being simple, mild, and easy-going, 9(a)-(d), pp. 67-8.

Psellos described his mother’s parents as having a gender-egalitarian marriage:

Each of her parents had known only the other; through one another, as though they were most familiar examples, they regulated their lives toward the good, at the same time shaping and being shaped, being archetypes to one another and models for emulation. What is even more marvelous is that they receive what they give and straightway give what they receive.

Encomium 2(a), trans. id. p. 53.

[3] “Ancient commandment” refers to Ephesians 5:22-4, which should be interpreted in its biblical and experiential context.

[4] Michael Psellos, Chronographia 6.1, relevant text from Greek trans. Lauritzen (2007) p. 252. Id. also provides the Greek text. Sewter (1953), p. 113, is a less accurate translation. Zoe and her sister Theodora became empresses in 1042.

[5] Lauritzen (2007). Herrin (2001) provides a popular history of the careers of three Byzantine empresses between 780 and 856: Irene, Euphrosyne, and Theodora. Id. provides persuasive evidence of gynocentric domination through to the present.

[image] Mosaic depicting Byzantine Empress Theodora (reigned 527-548 GC). In the Basilica of San Vitale (built A.D. 547), Italy. Photo thanks to Petar Milošević and Wikimedia Commons.

References:

Herrin, Judith. 2001. Women in purple: rulers of Medieval Byzantium. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Kaldellis, Anthony, ed. and trans. 2006. Mothers and sons, fathers and daughters: the Byzantine family of Michael Psellos. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

Lauritzen, Frederick. 2007. “A Courtier in the Women’s Quarters: The Rise and Fall of Psellos.” Byzantion; Revue Internationale Des Études Byzantines. 77: 251-266.

Sewter, E. R. A., trans. 1953. The Chronographia of Michael Psellus. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

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